Cellular Jail: Locked for life

Some 80,000 Indians, records suggest, were sent to Andaman as punishment over a period of some 80 years from 1860. Thousands of them were shot, hanged or tortured to death

 Cellular Jail: Locked for life

Abhijit Bhattacharya

Over a century ago when the Cellular Jail was finally completed in Port Blair (it took the British 13 years to complete the project between 1893 and 1906), the sea voyage to Andaman island took more than a week. In 2020 it is a 90-minute flight from Calcutta and Chennai.

The prison was meant for passionate freedom fighters who had little or no faith in passive, run-of-the-mill protests by way of pleading with the rulers and submitting petitions, the acceptable and popular mode with most passive Indians. But for more strong-willed freedom fighters, who reacted more violently to oppression, the Cellular Jail was meant to break their will and bend some to beg for mercy and promise good behaviour.

The prison was called ‘Cellular’ because it was made of small parts and designed for solitary confinement. The cells were barely four metres long and two and a half metres in width. And this was the confined space where political prisoners, held for expressing their dissent, were to spend a lifetime. Any form of extreme dissent against the British crown, invited a sentence to spend time in CELLULAR JAIL LOCKED FOR LIFE Some 80,000 Indians, records suggest, were sent to Andaman as punishment over a period of some 80 years from 1860. Thousands of them were shot, hanged or tortured to death. They had the option of seeking mercy. Not many exercised the option the Andaman jail, from where escape was impossible. Indeed, how dare coloured Indians defy the diktats of people from England painstakingly trying to “civilise” the natives, fulfilling the “white man’s burden”?

The jail had over 690 cells, built in a way that no inmate could see another or communicate with him. It was a stifling and lonely ‘lockdown’ that did drive people into insanity. Some refused to eat or drink, killing themselves in the process. Some died in the course of periodic visits to the torture chamber. Some were shot and others were hanged. Many of the bodies were thrown into the sea.

Indian politics then was neither ‘left’ nor ‘right’ but a national consciousness had been shaped by what the British saw as a mutiny in 1857, following which India was put under the British Crown and became a colony of the empire and not just a fiefdom of the East India Company. This consciousness was developed by the Indian National Congress, which was formed in 1885, and remarkable men and women of letters who sprung up across India. The overwhelming majority of the freedom fighters sent to the Cellular Jail, however, were from Bengal, Punjab and Maharashtra. They were mostly Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims but judging by the names, they were from all castes and communities.

History, however, has not been kind to these freedom fighters who gave their lives for no personal or selfish reason, but for their belief, for freedom and for upholding their right to dissent. But unlike the epitaph at the cemetery on the Indo-Burma border, for the freedom fighters who gave up their lives and freedom in the Cellular Jail, few Indians remember that these forgotten heroes are also entitled to say, “When you go home; Tell them of us and say; For your tomorrow; We gave our today”.

Historian Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, long an unspoken pariah to India’s glitterati, described the first phase of our national consciousness marked by an “impotent rage”. The second phase was “marked by the growth of patriotic and nationalist sentiment, chiefly due to English education and the contact with the Western culture”.

A powerful factor influencing freedom fighters was writings of Bankim Chandra Chatterji. The stirring invocation “Bande Mataram” in his novel Anandamath became the clarion call for freedom. The nationalism propounded by Bankim undeniably contained a tinge of Hinduism. The centrality of Anandamath revolved around a band of sanyasins, called sanatanas or children, who left their hearth and home to dedicate their lives to the cause of their motherland.

They would place three images of the Goddess Kali representing the motherland- Mother that was, great, glorious in her majestic grandeur; Mother that is, wretched and grovelling in the dust; and the Mother that will be, in her pristine glory. Yesterday; today; tomorrow.

Thus were “transported for life to the valley of death” men who dreamt of a free India and largely acted on their own volition. Knowing the consequences, the inevitable retribution from the British that would follow, these brave individuals still went forward unlike Indian capitalists and traders whose names are not found in the list of the martyred or incarcerated; they being believers in peace and non-violence or in their self-interest and individual prosperity.

Ullaskar Dutta along with other inmates were yoked to a press to grind mustard into oil. He “refused to do it” since the allotted quota could not be done even by the bull. Expectedly, he was whipped and kept in hands-up fetter position for three days till he fell unconscious. After release, he was found mentally deranged. InduBhushan Roy, after being incarcerated for 23 years, was hanged on the iron vent behind his cell. For Mahavir Singh, Mohan Kishor Namdas, Mohit Moitra, resistance cost their lives. They died of forced feeding after milk seeped into their lungs.

There are innumerable tales of such freedom fighters, hailing from the north to the south, and from the east to the west which most rich and wealthy Indians do not know of because they are not interested in learning “true history of India”, and also, to most of them, “history is bunk”.

It’s time to honestly acknowledge the contribution and role of freedom fighters incarcerated and martyred in the cellular jail of Port Blair and give them a place under the Sun. It’s time to give them their due and recognise their invaluable contribution to India’s Independence.

The Cellular Jail is today a neglected foot note in history but deserves greater prominence and possibly a memorial in the national capital to serve as a daily reminder to people in power.

(The author, a retired civil servant and an alumnus of National Defence College is a practicing lawyer in the Supreme Court)

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